“This is the first time I’ve been honest about her, and this is the last time I want to talk about it.”
Greyson Chance and I are sitting in the Hollywood Hills home of producer Brett McLaughlin on a warm August morning. The quaint spot is where Chance — the 25-year-old musician who got his start on The Ellen Show as a tween — stays when he visits L.A. from Oklahoma, where he owns a home. The place is typically filled with the boisterous energy of the artists McLaughlin works with. (RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Ginger Minj was recording a song here the other day. “‘Give me more cunt!’” Chance remembers, with a chuckle, hearing from McLaughlin’s studio.)
But today, the room is still, filled only with the palpable nervous energy of a musician unsure of how to start a conversation he’s been wanting to have for more than five years. “I figured we could start with this,” Chance says, queuing up the emotional video for his latest single, “My Dying Spirit.” “I’m barely on my feet, mama,” he sings over haunting piano. “I’m barely holding on by a thread.” It’s the only visual he’s dropping for Palladium, his recently released new album.
Speaking to Rolling Stone last month, Chance wants to get something off his chest: the trauma he says he felt as a teenager after being discovered and later “completely abandoned” by Ellen DeGeneres. “I’ve never met someone more manipulative, more self-centered, and more blatantly opportunistic than her,” he says.
The piano chords rang loudly as a sixth-grader’s prepubescent voice echoed in the Oklahoma middle school gym. A shaky videographer captured a then-12-year-old Greyson Chance performing Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” in front of his schoolmates in early 2010, marking the first time that Greyson sang in front of a crowd. The boy could never have imagined that that local performance would change his life.
It took about a week after the video was posted online for Chance’s mom to receive a call from Los Angeles: Ellen DeGeneres wanted her son on the show the next day. “We just couldn’t believe what was happening,” Chance says. “We were so unsure of what we were getting into, and the person that helped cure all of that skepticism and chaotic energy was Ellen.”
Chance took his first-ever plane ride to appear on The Ellen Show, where he says DeGeneres presented herself as a guardian and a mentor to Chance and his mother. “I remember her pulling my mom aside and saying, ‘You’re never going to have to work again a day in your life.’” To Chance, he recalls, she’d say, “I’m going to protect you. I’m going to be here for you. We’re going to do this together.”
By the time Chance got on Ellen the day after his arrival in L.A., the celebrated TV host who preached about kindness had already conquered daytime television, hitting all-time highs in her show’s ratings. She had recently started a judging gig on American Idol and branched out into a previously unexplored entertainment avenue: the music business. The viral “Paparazzi” kid was the perfect start.
After interviewing Chance on her show in May 2010, DeGeneres gifted the singer $10,000 and a new piano. And inspired by his prodigious talent, she co-created eleveneleven, a record label that was distributed by Interscope Geffen A&M Records, and signed him as her first act. It was her chance, as Variety put it, at “out-Bieb-ing the Bieber,” the biggest teen pop star at the time.
DeGeneres got Chance high-profile managers: Troy Carter and Guy Oseary, who worked with Lady Gaga and Madonna, respectively. She helped him get a deal with WME for a booking agent. A publicist. A brand agent. Put simply by Chance’s mom, Lisa, “It was a big explosion.”
With DeGeneres leading the way, Chance first released a mini EP in October 2010, five months after signing with her. During that time, Chance says, the TV host was always a phone call or dinner date away. As Chance increased his touring schedule — performing in Canada, Paris, London, and across the U.S. — DeGeneres increasingly became “really invested” in the singer, he says. But she also “became domineering and way too controlling.”
As Chance’s career intensified, so, too, did his bristling against DeGeneres’ control. Chance says she was like a “hidden eye” over his career. “My whole week, my whole month, my whole year could change [with] one text message from her,” explains Chance. “That was horrible.” There was one time, he says, DeGeneres was sent a video of a scheduled performance for a different network. She didn’t like what she saw, he says, and made him and his team redo the entire thing. “If she had an opinion of any sort, the whole thing changed,” he says.
On another occasion, Chance had performed in Cleveland, the third of five consecutive stops opening for Miranda Cosgrove on tour, and DeGeneres, back in L.A., had gotten an advance copy of Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never documentary. She wanted Chance to watch it, but Chance says he was exhausted from touring and didn’t make viewing it a top priority.
DeGeneres then called Chance’s mom. “I’ll never forget this,” Chance says. “I just remember hearing on the other side of the phone, just yelling [and] beratement: ‘What type of mother are you? Do you realize that I went out of my way to get this for you, and he can’t sit down and watch it?’”
“People forgot how old he was. [Ellen] was not very happy that he hadn’t watched it because she thought that it was important for him to guide his career based on what Justin was doing,” says Chance’s mother, Lisa. “I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she was berating.”
Then, Greyson says, DeGeneres asked to speak to the singer. “Disappointed isn’t even remotely what I’m feeling right now,” Greyson remembers her saying. “It was clear that, ‘OK, I’m a pawn in your game.’ So I watched the movie.” (Through a rep, DeGeneres declined to comment on Rolling Stone’s detailed list of questions about Chance’s allegations.)
After Chance’s tour with Cosgrove, he immediately hit the road and co-headlined a tour with fellow teen heartthrob Cody Simpson to close 2011. The following year, he went on tour in Asia, where he gained a significant following. He also appeared on Fox’s Raising Hope, expanding his career possibilities.
Chance would finish 14- to 16-hour days balancing tours, press, and music recording, as much as an adult. He traveled with a teacher, but ”[management would sometimes] pull her aside and be like, ‘What can we do for you so he can still do this interview and these shows?’” (Chance’s mother confirmed that this “happened a little bit, but not a whole lot.”)
“You’re now showing the world as if we’re so tight. We’re so good. And behind the scenes, you are this insanely manipulative person.”
Lisa says there were several times that DeGeneres “would go through his clothes” and be “a little controlling” about what Chance wore. He was specifically never allowed to wear leather, due to DeGeneres’ commitment to veganism at the time. “She would come in and look at a rack, yell at stylists, berate people in front of me and say, ‘This is what you’re wearing on the show,’” he remembers. “She was just degrading to people.”
Though they don’t recall witnessing any negative behavior from DeGeneres around Chance, a former production employee of The Ellen Show tells Rolling Stone that there was “absolutely no surprise” that he may have experienced that sort of controlling behavior. The former employee, who worked on the show during Chance’s rise and was fired after a year, also felt that DeGeneres was “manipulative and opportunistic,” and that working with her was a “wake-up call to not always follow the money,” they say, adding that their experience working on the show “was literally hell.”
The former employee’s comments echo those of their colleagues on the show, who alleged a toxic work environment that DeGeneres herself was apparently oblivious of, which included allegations reported on in two 2020 BuzzFeed exposés of racism, intimidation, and harassment. Three Ellen executive producers were accused of sexual misconduct and were reportedly fired in the midst of an internal investigation. In news reports at the time, some staffers said that executive producers had “insulated” DeGeneres from what was happening behind the scenes. “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened,” DeGeneres said on Ellen after the allegations came out. “I take that very seriously, and I want to say I’m so sorry to the people who were affected.”
When Chance’s music started to underperform and ticket sales dropped in 2012, Chance says DeGeneres disappeared. The once-controlling savior who Chance says had promised him and his family the world became “completely removed.”
He released his second project on DeGeneres’ label, Truth Be Told, Part 1, in November 2012. After it tanked, he says, the TV host “completely abandoned” him. Interscope soon dropped him and key people on his team, including his agent, publicist, and management team disappeared. Chance says he tried calling DeGeneres and never heard back.
“I couldn’t get ahold of her. Couldn’t talk to her,” says Chance, who returned to the show several times after 2012. “Whenever I would come on the show, it was such a fake smile. She wouldn’t even ask, ‘How are you doing? How are you holding up?’ It was just like, ‘Here’s what we’re going to talk about. We’ll see you on there.’”
Chance’s mom takes a more nuanced view of DeGeneres’ role in Chance’s career. “I think that Ellen is a businesswoman. And if something isn’t trending the way she wants it to, she’s going to put an end to it because it’s business for her,” she tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not warm and fuzzy. I don’t think she invited people to be a part of her life or take someone under their wing like she did if she didn’t want to see something come of it. If it wasn’t moving fast enough for her, that’s when she started to shut down or shut us out.”
For Rhode Island music teacher Emily Luther, a former labelmate on eleveneleven discovered alongside Charlie Puth, Chance’s story is all-too-familiar. “She is someone that wants to control things and doesn’t want to take advice from people who might know a little bit more about how to do things,” Luther says. “She wants to be the one who gets the glory.”
“The way it was portrayed was, ‘She’s going to be working with you every step of the way. And it’s going to be amazing.’ And for me, growing up in a family with very little money … you put your trust in her,” she adds. “And she really let us down.”
Luther says that when Interscope offered opinions on her music project, DeGeneres “kind of dug her heels in and was like, ‘That’s not what I want to do.’ But the problem is, she didn’t really know how the business worked.”
“Knowing that you’re dealing with children and people’s dreams,” she says, “that’s serious, you know? It was upsetting.”
After the label dropped Chance, he returned to Oklahoma. He finished online school, made occasional trips to Nashville and L.A. to still take a stab at music while readjusting to a life he had forgotten back home. “When he got back, it was different,” remembers Madeline Goedecke, a childhood friend of Chance. “You could tell that it had been hard on him coming back from all of that.”
Chance tried to avoid talking about his brush with stardom. And his friends — mostly his older sibling’s friends, since he didn’t attend a normal high school — would only ask about it when he brought it up.
“You could tell there was a letdown,” Goedecke says. But Chance still wanted to make music. He wouldn’t release an official project until the 2016 EP Somewhere Over My Head, four years after being dropped. (Between 2014 and 2016, he released a handful of singles, including “Thrilla in Manila,” on SoundCloud.)
“My whole week, my whole month, my whole year could change [with] one text message from her. That was horrible.”
Chance would return to The Ellen Show to promote Somewhere as an 18-year-old in 2015. “I’m just so proud of you,” DeGeneres would tell Chance on TV. Backstage, though, he says the two didn’t speak.
After the EP, Chance “retired” from music and attended the University of Tulsa, where he majored in history. Leaving music for college was his way of holding up a “middle finger to the industry,” Chance says. “It was me going, ‘You could have had an amazing artist on your hands, but fuck this. I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m quitting.’“
Chance says instinct drove him back to making and releasing music again. As a college kid, he was able to “experience music again as a fan” and not feel so locked into it. “It was only through that retirement process where I realized that it’s not on them anymore,” he says. “‘This is on you. This is your life. This is your career. What do you want to do with it?”
He came back with Portraits, his strongest project to date, which reminded listeners of the talent they had forgotten. With some momentum about his sudden return, a well-streamed record, and his most personal, honest music, Chance returned to Ellen in 2019 to perform “Shut Up,” and sat down for an awkward chat in a “place of active trauma for me.”
“She came out during soundcheck and she looked at me, hugged me. And she said, ‘How have you been?’ And that just killed me inside because I was like, ’What do you mean how have I fucking been? Where have you been?” Chance remembers. Chance’s mom adds that DeGeneres had become “pretty distant.”
During the interview, DeGeneres would share how proud she was of him for coming out as gay two years prior. To Chance, the praise felt “cheap.” “She had nothing to do with that. … [When I came out,] I hadn’t spoken to her in years… That’s so messed up, that you’re now showing the world as if we’re so tight. We’re so good. And behind the scenes, you are this insanely manipulative person.”
“When I look at the interviews and I look at my eyes, I can see so much anxiety. I can just see so much PTSD because I’m there holding on for dear life going, ‘I need this TV gig,’“ Chance adds. “I was 100 percent faking it, and [I felt like] she’s 100 percent faking it with me, too.”
After that day, Chance vowed to never return to the show. His career would continue to rise as he toured Portraits around the world, performing at nearly 120 concerts in a year. But he’d get through it by latching onto bad habits. After most shows, he’d down a small bottle of Tito’s vodka. “I still felt like a puppet. It was like, ‘Who am I doing this for?’” he says. Chance says therapy helped him develop better habits as he continued to release new music.
Greyson Chance is ready to move on.
Chance just released his album Palladium, which he wrote with producer Jason Reeves. It’s a full-length effort with a grittier sound and crisp Zayn Malik-like vocals that strays from the sounds of his past. It’s about “protecting your instinct, your heart, your soul, and making sure that that’s your priority,” Chance explains.
“As much as I would like to say that I could’ve made this album without my past, I just don’t think that’s true,” he says. “I just need to be more honest with myself moving forward because I think that’s how I become better from all of this.”
There’s no Auto-Tune on the record, and there are moments on the album when Chance’s rising vocals showcase that fight for freedom he’s sought for years. It’s a brutally personal listen, with some songs influenced by what Chance learned following the dissolution of his most serious adult relationship.
“I thought I had my life projected out, and when someone came into my life that was so able to check all those boxes, I ran from it,” he says, describing his song “Homerun Hitter.” “I want to be there for someone in the way that they’re there for me. That takes a level of trust that I just don’t think I have right now.”
There’s “Black Mascara,” where he sings, “I think I’m better off when I do what I fucking want.” And “Hemingway, 74 Rue du Cardinal,” on which he asks, “Oh, and if I find my revolution, will I be triumphant or will I be ruined?” While making his new album, Chance asked himself that question many times: “After writing the album,” he says, “I’m 100 percent triumphant.”
Last month, Chance’s life came full circle when he saw another person who (indirectly) helped spark his career: Lady Gaga. The two saw each other backstage during her Chromatica Ball stop in New York — a decade earlier, they had met for the first time at her Monster Ball tour, where he says Gaga told him, “I need you to have fun while you’re doing this. You’re 12 years old.”
Over the years, Chance says, Gaga has “always kept her door open to me. She looks at me every time and she’s like, ‘You’re a fucking man now. This is crazy.’ She has been there for me in the ways that Ellen never was.”
In March of this year, The Ellen Show called. Show producers were planning the final season’s guests, which included superstars Jennifer Aniston, Kim Kardashian, and Bruno Mars, among others. They wanted Chance back on the show.
He could envision how the interview would go: He’d parade over to the show’s couch, hug DeGeneres, and look back at clips of his many visits over the years. “How in the world am I supposed to sit down and say I’m so thankful and let her take that moment,” Chance says. “‘Look at what I did for this kid. He’s now an artist. He’s now still performing, and it’s all because of me.’”
Chance says they asked him to return twice after that, even offering him an appearance during the show’s final two weeks, with peak viewership. “I couldn’t do that,” he says. “So I turned down a national-TV gig on the eve of an album release, which is probably not a smart thing to do, but I had to do it for my integrity.”
As our conversation wraps, Chance looks relieved. I ask him how he’s feeling: “Let’s pop a bottle of champagne,” he jokes. It’s off his chest now.
“The first part of my career, I owe a lot of thanks to her and to that team. But the reason why I’m here today talking about an album, I owe fucking nothing to her,” he says. “Because I was the one that had to pull myself up. She was nowhere to be found.”